From ancient times to the present, clowns have served a dual purpose within society. Clowns are meant to be amusing; however, they often derive their humor from behaving as social deviants, which teaches moral lessons and serves to reinforce social norms for the audience. Therefore, while clowns may be funny-perhaps, they also are not to be trusted. Clowns are playful, perpetually happy (as proven by their as-permanent-as-grease-paint smile), and always ready to entertain; yet, that playfulness can be used for deceit, rebellion, and perhaps even evil. Although clowns have existed for centuries, over the past several decades, coulrophobia, or fear of clowns, has become pervasive in our society. This fear may stem from the paradox embodied by the concept of the clown.
In order to understand our modern fears, we must first understand the history of clowns. The “jester or fool of ancient times…was given permission, and even expected, to represent the deviant side of human nature, from openly defying the sexual norms of the day to mocking the gods” (Fritscher). Over time, “the jester morphed into the trickster, a more sinister figure with intentions that were less than honorable” (Fritscher). Another historically popular type of clown was the tramp clown. James McIntyre and Tom Heath “created the tramp clown characterization in 1874. They portrayed African Americans made homeless by the Civil War. They based their characters on blackface minstrel clowns which is the origin of the white mouth used by tramp clowns” (Johnson). A second theory involves “…traveling ‘hoe boys,’ or itinerant farm workers, who rode the rails from one town to another, wiping the soot away from their eyes & mouth. These hoe boys (or hobos) are another possible inspiration for the tramp clown” (Johnson). Throughout the Depression era in the United States, tramp clowns, who entertained their higher-class counterparts, “were largely members of the ‘unsavory’ underclass” (Fritscher). “Although most tramp clowns were harmless, a seedy underbelly did exist among the clown circuit” (Fritscher). Throughout the history of clowning, clowns have been characterized as low-class, social misfits. These types of people are often seen as defying the social norms of civilized society and may be associated with crime and other deviant behavior.
This association can create a distrust and dislike of clowns, which when combined with stories of true criminal clowns can easily breed fear. Emmett Kelly created the famous Weary Willie tramp clown character. After Kelly’s retirement, his son, Emmett Kelly, Jr. took over the role. In the 1970s Kelly’s grandson, Paul Kelly continued the tradition. Paul Kelly began calling himself Emmett Kelly III and performing as Weary Willie. “Simultaneously, he slid into a life of drugs and sexual freedom. In 1978, Kelly III was arrested for the murders of two of his homosexual partners. He admitted to the slayings, but listed ‘Willie’ as an accomplice” (Fritscher). He was later diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and it appears that the clown Weary Willie had become one of his malevolent personalities.
In the same decade, John Wayne Gacy, who performed at children’s parties as Pogo The Clown, made headlines as the “Killer Clown.” In 1964, while working at his father-in-law’s restaurant, Gacy “lured a young boy to the back and tried to sodomize him when he refused to perform oral sex” (Montaldo). Gacy was convicted of sexual molestation and served 18 months of a 10 year prison sentence. Once released from prison, Gacy moved to Chicago where he began finding young men, “luring them to his home where he would then torture, rape, and brutally kill them” (Montaldo). When police became suspicious, Gacy invited them in for coffee. Officers were met by the stench of decaying corpses. “The police then obtained a search warrant and uncovered 29 bodies in the crawlspace of Gacy’s house. The bodies were all male and ranged in age from nine years old to their mid-20s. Later Gacy admitted to more killings in which he dumped the bodies into a nearby river” (Montaldo). When all was said and done, the Killer Clown was convicted of 33 murders.
Although these stories are enough to invoke Killer Clown nightmares, many people experience coulrophobia without ever having heard of these real-life evil clowns. Many people fear clowns because of the thick mask-like make-up, which obscures both their identities and their true intentions. “Anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss has discussed extensively the “freedoms” awarded by a mask: They let people bypass conventions and the everyday…” (D’Costa). Clown make-up provides the wearer with a degree of anonymity comparable to that of a mask. The natural fear is that clowns will use this anonymity to get away with evil behaviors. Furthermore, when engaging in social interactions, human beings use not only spoken-language, but also body language, gestures, and facial expressions to convey meaning. Facial expressions can reveal a persons’ true feelings better than his or her spoken words. When a person’s face is concealed, others cannot discern his or her true emotions. Strauss explained,
The facial disguise temporarily eliminated from social intercourse that part of the body through which, people have long believed, the individual’s personal feelings and attitudes are revealed or can be deliberately communicated to others. The face is the organ by which self and society carry on the largest portion of the communication in which they engage, not only linguistic communication but paralinguistic as well” (D’Costa).
In addition, because clowns typically wear a continuous, false smile, a clown’s unchanging facial expression is not appropriate for social interaction. In a sane person, a happy smile is not aligned with evil behaviors. The mismatch of facial expression and expected emotional response makes people uneasy at best. Perhaps it is the inability to discern a clown’s true intentions that causes fear. Maybe it is the expectation of something happy or funny being met with an unexpected evil lurking just beneath the cheerful costume. After all, fear is a natural reaction for self-preservation. The clowns’ seemingly harmless exterior with its perpetual smile shouldn’t invoke fear, which means by the time the sinister being underneath is revealed, it is too late for escape.
The association between clowns, deviance, murder, and mental-illness makes it easy to understand why there are countless media portrayals of evil clowns. Perhaps the most famous is Stephen King’s It. Also, Michael Myers wore a clown mask when killing his sister. Additional examples include “Clownhouse from 1990 where three boys at home alone are menaced by escaped mental patients who have taken on the identities of clowns they have killed; Mr Jingles from 2006, where a killer clown takes its revenge; and 2004′s In Fear of Clowns, in which an artist with coulrophobia is stalked by a clown resembling one of her paintings. S.I.C.K., Killjoy and the Camp Blood Trilogy…but perhaps the highlight is 1988′s Killer Klowns from Outer Space, with the tagline ‘In Space No One Can Eat Ice Cream’” (Rohrer). “Dark clown imagery can also be seen in Jacques Tourneur’s cult films Night of the Demon and Berlin Express, as well as in the form of the Joker in Batman comics and film adaptations” (Rohrer). Some have blamed the character of the Joker for Heath Ledger’s demise. The Joker is also associated with the killing spree of a likely sociopath at a showing of the Batman movie Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.
Not only has the media capitalized on coulrophobes using the evil clown concept, but various companies and organizations have now brought the Killer Clown image to life. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios has used a killer clown to scare thrill-seeking guests for several years. The Evil Clown Stalking Service in Lucerne, Switzerland offers the following terrifying deal: “For a sum of 666 Swiss francs, one of Deville’s freakish-looking clowns will follow a victim for a week, playing tricks such as late-night phone calls, leaving ‘odd items’ in the person’s mailbox, as well as traditional stalking. Then, on the victim’s birthday, the clown will throw a cake into his face” (Smiley). If that is not enough, you might consider joining The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army (CIRCA). With just a few clicks of your mouse, you can easily access CIRCA’s recruitment page, which asks: ““Are YOU tired of humdrum protests and bored of capitalism? Do YOU enjoy working in a team and ridiculing authority? Do YOU long for extremely silly adventures?” If so,
The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army is looking for fools and rebels, radicals and rascals, tricksters and traitors, mutineers and malcontents to join its ranks.
You could be part of a fighting force armed with ruthless love and fully trained in the ancient art of clowning and non-violent direct action. You could learn ingeniously stupid tactics that baffle the powerful. You could uncover your inner clown and discover the subversive freedom of fooling. You don’t need to like clowns or soldiers, you just need to love life and laughter as much as rebellion. If you think you’ve got what it takes then follow your nose & join CIRCA! (CIRCA)
Clearly, the paradoxical characterization of the clown has played a key role in the recent coulrophobia epidemic. Clowns, who are supposed to be happy and funny have a long history of associations with the deviant, the dishonest, the poor, the oppressed, the criminal, the murderous, and the insane. It is no wonder that clowns can strike terror in the hearts of children and adults alike. The reconcilable dichotomy of the clown can be summed up with the image of a clown smiling while killing a child. That alone is enough to make me suffer an acute case of coulrophobia.
CIRCA. Accessed November 17, 2012. http://www.clownarmy.org/recruit/recruit.html
D’Costa, Krystal. Why Are We Afraid of Clowns?. Scientific American. October 31, 2011. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/anthropology-in-practice/2011/10/31/cant-sleepclown-will-eat-me-why-are-we-afraid-of-clowns/
Fritscher, Lisa. Clown Phobia: Fear of Clowns. About.com. December 14, 2010. http://phobias.about.com/od/introductiontophobias/a/clownphobia.htm
Johnson, Bruce. History of Clowning from the Ancient Pharaohs to the Modern Day. Clown Ministry. 1992. http://www.clown-ministry.com/index_1.php/articles/history_of_clowning_from_the_ancient_pharaohs_to_the_modern_day_by_bruce_jo/
Montaldo, Charles. John Wayne Gacy the “Killer Clown”. About.com. http://crime.about.com/od/serial/p/gacy.htm
Rohrer, Finlo. Why are clowns scary?. BBC News Magazine. January 16, 2008. http://phobias.about.com/gi/o.htm?zi=1/XJ&zTi=1&sdn=phobias&cdn=health&tm=1079&gps=481_28_1080_669&f=00&su=p284.13.342.ip_&tt=2&bt=1&bts=1&zu=http%3A//news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7191721.stm
Smiley, Brett. Evil Clown Stalking Service Is for Adults Only. Asylum. April 19, 2010. http://www.asylum.com/2010/04/19/evil-clown-stalking-service-is-for-adults-only/
- Erika Elmore